Traditional healers in Philippines keep their ‘forest pharmacy’ standing

  • The island of Siquijor in the southern Philippines is famed for its traditional healing practices; less well known is the role its healers play in conserving the island’s forests.
  • Traditional practices and beliefs encourage respectful and sustainable harvest of medicinal plants.
  • The island’s healers’ association also collaborates with researchers and a government reforestation initiative to monitor and cultivate medicinal trees in the island’s forests.

CANTABON, Philippines — In the heart of Siquijor province in the southern Philippines lies the secluded mountain village of Cantabon. Amid the verdant trees, the healing hut, or balay pahi-uli, of shamans Noel and Juanita Torremocha stands as a serene sanctuary, offering solace to patients seeking traditional folk remedies.

Siquijor is famed for its thriving traditional healing practices that draw a diverse crowd, including international visitors, seeking remedies for a wide array of health concerns ranging from simple sprains to severe ailments like cancer. The Torremochas are part of a community of 300 mananambal, or healers, who have kept this heritage alive for generations.

On a sunny morning in December 2023, the couple attend to an elderly woman who’s come from a nearby island province complaining of arm pain. The woman removes her shoes at the hut’s lanai, where a rack of amulets and potions are on display. Juanita, 64, gently guides her into the treatment room, enclosed by walls of woven bamboo strips.

Inside, Noel, 54, has the patient sit on a wooden stool. An altar adorned with miniature statues of prominent Catholic figures stands behind him, attesting to the Philippines’ standing as the largest Catholic country in Asia. As he listens to the woman recount the origins of her ailment, Noel’s right hand rests atop a wooden table laden with large bottles filled to the brim with concoctions of oil and extracts of medicinal plants.

Next, Noel starts the tuob ritual, a form of fumigation believed to dispel sickness and fend off bad spells. He puts a small pot filled with ashes and oil under a stool and lights it. Juanita then drapes the patient woman in a soft yellow blanket, trapping the warmth within. As the smoke billows, it enveloped the patient. Then Noel uncovers her and rubs a healing mixture into her right palm, kneading the sore limb as he intones a prayer.

The Torremochas and other mananambals in Siquijor are more than just bearers of ancient healing traditions and supernatural beliefs. Unknown to many, they’re also guardians of the forests, which they consider sources of healing and the dwelling places of spirits, both benevolent and malevolent.

Most of the healers live near Mount Bandilaan National Park, a 271-hectare (670-acre) protected forest reserve. Bandilaan is Siquijor’s highest peak, at 557 meters (1,827 feet). Its forests are home to 188 identified plant species, of which 19 are considered threatened, according to a 2019 floristic assessment by experts from Bohol Island State University and the University of the Philippines Los Baños. A 2021 study found the park is also home to seven amphibian species, 12 bird species and eight bat species, some of which are endemic and endangered in the Philippines.

Through both traditional practices and a government reforestation initiative, efforts to protect the park from deforestation and degradation contribute to combating climate change and preserving the island’s rich biodiversity.

Destined to heal

Juanita grew up assisting her father, Pedro Tumapon, a legendary healer in Siquijor. When her father died in 2007, she says, she initially hesitated to take up his legacy. But she felt compelled by her conscience, she says. “Your destiny to heal others was imprinted on your palm from a young age,” Juanita tells, sitting on a wooden bench on the lanai of their balay pahi-uli.

Local beliefs warn that ignoring the call to heal brings misfortune. “If you don’t accept it, you may face adverse consequences,” Juanita says. “After my father’s death, I was constantly ill, suffering from back and head pain. However, once I began the healing journey, I stopped falling sick, thanks to God’s mercy.”

The Torremochas’ house is rarely without visitors. The couple start their day with a prayer as soon as dawn breaks, knowing they might have guests at any moment. Patients from nearby towns and provinces sometimes arrive so early that the couple are still asleep.

“We do not ask for money from people who seek our healing abilities,” Noel tells his patient, who looks relieved. “We are content with whatever donations we receive, whether monetary or in kind.” For them, Noel says, their gift of healing is not a commodity to be traded, but a blessing to be shared freely, especially to the poor who lack the means to access Western medicine.

Sustainable practices

Of the pair, Noel has a deeper knowledge of Bandilaan’s medicinal resources. When his father-in-law was still alive, Noel accompanied him to collect these plants during the Holy Week, which is also the time of Siquijor’s annual healing festival.

From 2014 to 2019, experts from Siquijor State College, Negros Oriental State University, the University of the Philippines Manila, and the Philippines’ Department of Science and Technology documented the Indigenous local healing practices and ethnopharmacological knowledge of the communities in Siquijor. The study identified up to 218 plant species used by folk healers. These plants, primarily from six families, are mostly found on Mt. Bandilaan.

Noel says he learned to recognize such plants by their appearance, smell and taste, and to use them wisely and respectfully. For seven consecutive Fridays ending on Good Friday, he leads a group of herb gatherers who set out early in the morning and venture deep into Bandilaan. “The journey is tough,” he says. “You have to ascend further, you will face all kinds of animals, like bees that sting.”

They follow pangalap (gathering) methods that are sustainable, only pruning trees and herbs to promote growth and enable their yearly harvest. “We leave especially the mature ones unharmed. If we were to extract them completely, right up to their roots, they will die,” Noel says.

“The forest is a pharmacy, a laboratory and a library of infinite wisdom, that’s why it’s important to us,” Junel Tomaroy, another renowned folk healer, tells. “When it comes to collecting herbs, that’s where you can see the respect. The healers have a limit because in a year we only collect for seven days. When we come back next year, the branch we cut has sprouted and become three or two.”

Folk healers say the optimal time to gather natural cures from medicinal plants and trees is from morning until noon, when they say these plants have the highest potency. They honor the late afternoon and nighttime hours as the time when they say the spirits wander back to the forest. “They come out at night, they can see us, but we can’t see them,” Noel says.

“We ask for permission before we gather herbs there, or we request it through dreams, which shows respect,” Tomaroy says. “You can feel it if you are really sensitive. They will push you away when you go there if they don’t like you.” Those who persist without consent might get lost or wounded in the forest, fall sick, or even die, he adds.

“[Our] research [showed] that Siquijor’s ‘mysticism’ is not due to witchcraft or voodoo, but the people’s vast wealth of health knowledge and practices,” Josel Mansueto, a professor at Siquijor State College who led the 2014-2019 project,

The Philippine government’s National Greening Program contracted the Cantabon Healers Association to plant medicinal plants and trees across 80 hectares (nearly 200 acres) of forest on Mt. Bandilaan between 2011 and 2013. With an 80% survival rate, this initiative ensures that these forest resources will continue to grow for generations, performing their vital sociocultural, ecological and economic functions, according to Siquijor’s Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Office (PENRO).

“We encourage [local healers] to plant these medicinal trees and plants in their respective backyards by partnering with us, so that we can preserve them within the timberland areas,” Paul Tomogsoc, a senior environmental management specialist at PENRO, The reforestation efforts are aligned with the provincial government’s goal of further increasing the island’s forested area, which currently stands at 1,179 hectares (2,914 acres).

Forest conservation

Siquijor’s tree cover shrank by just 1.7%, or 238 hectares (588 acres) from 2001 to 2022, compared to 7.6% for the whole of the Philippines, Global Forest Watch data show. A 2012 study from Siquijor State College suggests that folk healing traditions and spiritual beliefs may contribute to the conservation of the island’s forests, particularly those surrounding a river considered sacred.

“We found that the people have beliefs on the existence of the spirits in the area, and that the river should be shared with them, too,” says Mansueto, who also led that study.

“Given this, people practice responsible utilization of the forest and the river so as not to anger the spirits. Therefore, when they get plants and herbs to be used for healing, they do not exploit the resources. They make sure they only get what they need.”

Tomogsoc also points to PENRO’s ongoing active involvement in the campaign against illegal logging, which includes law enforcement and an information drive. This has helped instill a sense of stewardship among residents, motivating them to protect and conserve their forests, he says.

He says forest conservation is vital for Siquijor, a small island measuring 34,350 hectares (84,880 acres) and vulnerable to climate crisis-driven typhoons — the main threat to the province’s forests. “This is essential for fighting climate change; we cannot survive without the forest,” Tomogsoc says.

With an increase in tourism, PENRO is collaborating with the local government to determine the island’s carrying capacity — the most tourists it can accommodate at a time without harming its ecology, culture and economy.

The healers’ association agrees with the government and supports its various initiatives, from reforestation to reporting violators. “The forest is our source of wellness and livelihood,” says Aniceta Ponce, president of Siquijor’s traditional healers’ association. “All the herbs we need are there in the forest, so we preserve it, we do not ruin it. That is why you do not see us chopping the trees here in Siquijor.

“We conserve them because it gives us protection when there is a storm or an earthquake. What if there are no trees left? There would be no safeguard for our watershed. We would be defenseless against severe heat,” she adds.

Fading away

But the local healing traditions are gradually fading away due to the growth of tourism and intercultural exchange, the death of old healers, and the emergence of technology and Western health care facilities, Mansueto’s team notes in its study.

Mansueto is currently working on books that aim to educate locals, especially students, about the health knowledge and practices of the Siquijor mananambals, and how these relate to preserving forest resources.

“Through these learning materials, they will be able to continue their health knowledge and be proud of their culture, while also being empowered to protect the environment and natural resources,” she says. “They will know that everything they need to maintain their health and wellness is mainly from Mother Nature.”

As for healers like Noel, they allow their children and younger relatives to witness their practices: “But the decision to follow the call and carry on our cherished tradition for future generations is ultimately theirs.”

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